Cricket's 'Gameplan' to tackle mental health
Jordan Silk and Shaun Tait open up on their battles as CA, ACA roll out a revolutionary well-being education program aimed at better identifying cricket's No.1 priority
For Jordan Silk, it was a combination of isolation, lack of communication, and insecurity over his ability.
For Shaun Tait, it was frustration at the failures of his own body, the unrelenting constancy of the cricket schedule, and the incessant scrutiny of the media.
But as cricket again grapples with the recurring problem of mental health-related issues, it is player power that is driving change.
This summer, a revolutionary well-being education program will be rolled out to all Australian domestic cricketers.
The program is the product of years of research and development by the Australian Cricketers' Association (ACA) and Cricket Australia (CA), and the centrepiece of 'Gameplan', a well-being and education program that was launched in June following an increasing in funding allocation in the space in the 2017 Memorandum of Understanding.
"Players actually prioritised mental health as number one in the player development space that they wanted us to focus on," Justine Whipper, ACA National Manager, Player Development and Wellbeing told cricket.com.au.
"They know it's important and they wanted it to be the main topic we spent more time on."
How the ACA and CA are tackling issues related to mental health
After this summer's KFC Big Bash, players will undertake one of three new modules, depending on the stage of their career
Well-being education framework
Early career: Under 23 years
SELF-AWARENESS & SELF CONCEPT (1)
- Introducing the baseline level of recognizing and understanding one’s self as an individual separate from the environment or others.
- Self-awareness aspect of understanding functional and dysfunctional personal responses (internal and external).
- Players will learn to identify what they look and feel like when they are thriving and when they are stressed
MENTAL HEALTH LITERACY (delivered at new player induction camp)
- Destigmatising mental illness
- Recognising poor mental health in yourself and others
- Having a conversation with someone about their mental health
- Accessing help
RESILIENCE (1) (delivered at new player induction camp)
- Introducing resilience; What is it? Why is it relevant?
- Factors/themes that contribute to building and demonstrating resilience.
- Exploring the environmental, intrapersonal, and interpersonal challenges that may create adversity in the professional cricket landscape.
- Important to distinguish that resilience can often be required due to the challenges that come with success and not only failure
SELF-AWARENESS & SELF CONCEPT (2)
- Articulate their personal values and the daily behaviours that underpin them.
- Use the EPQ results to inform their level of self-awareness both within the game.
- Identify their self-awareness strengths and weaknesses, and key people/processes they will put in place to stay accountable to this inside and outside of the game
EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE (1)
- Focus on intra-self regulation of emotions (curriculum under development)
- Articulate an individual plan for functional/effective coping, as well as recognise the patterns of dysfunctional/ineffective coping and how they manifest for them.
- Use their EPQ results (resilience item) to highlight current strengths and guide developmental focus in the cricket environment
Late career: 28yrs+
SELF-AWARENESS & SELF CONCEPT (3)
An understanding of how past experiences have impacted their current and future thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
The ability to tell a coherent life narrative about their journey so far, how it has shaped them, and
where they would like to go in the future
EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE (2)
Focus on inter-relationships and how to get the best out of others as a senior leader.
SOCIAL SUPPORT & RELATIONSHIPS
Developing and maintaining positive relationships.
Player development managers from each state team will determine how and with whom their players receive the modules, in order to ensure the best possible engagement from each group.
"What we want from the self-awareness sessions are players walking away knowing their strengths and weaknesses, and how they act under stress," Whipper explains, before adding that a longer-term grounding in mental health education has Australian cricketers well positioned when it comes to identifying problems in the area.
"Before we launched Gameplan this year we did a three-year well-being education program, and I feel like the players are really well-educated on what ill-health looks like, the signs and how to look out for it," she says.
"There's so much commentary around 'It aint weak to speak' and 'Put your hand up if you're not doing well', that what's happening now is players are living that."
Those players in the past month have been Victorian trio Glenn Maxwell, Nic Maddinson and Will Pucovski. Prior to them, it was New South Welshman Moises Henriques and Western Australian Nicole Bolton, while Silk and Tait are among others to have taken hiatuses from the game to manage mental health related struggles.
The latter pair – and Whipper – all agree that with mental health, no two cases are the same, a fact that makes identification and management a complex task.
"I don't think there's any simple fix," says Silk, who missed the one-day domestic tournament of 2014 when he felt he had no other option but to walk away from cricket.
"(The root cause) can be a whole range of things: sometimes it's performance related and you're feeling anxious about upcoming selections; constant doubt over whether you're good enough – that's probably my biggest one I reckon, just the doubt that I had leading up to that period, that I'm just not good enough anymore.
"I don't know if all of them come from that, but I do feel like there's always that pressure of performance, and just not being sure whether you're good enough.
"At the time, that feeling is uncontrollable – no-one can talk you out of that space."
Shaun Tait walked out of cricket at the end of January 2008 because, like Silk, he didn't see another way.
Tait had debuted for Australia in the shorter formats the previous year and remained on the periphery of the Test squad, having played at the WACA against India only weeks before his decision to indefinitely quit the game. He didn't know at the time that would be his last Test match, though a lengthy career in Baggy Green was the least of his concerns.
"I copped a fair bit about it – it wasn't like it is now," Tait says. "I understand why you cop it for taking a break, because people look at Australian cricketers and say, 'Well it's an easy life, you get paid well and you're playing cricket'.
"But clearly the realities are it's not that easy.
"For me, it was everything that built up over time. My body was giving me grief … I was in and out of selection, and then media attention played a part – the whole pressures of playing cricket for Australia. I'm not making excuses but it was as simple as wanting a break. Cricket, especially nowadays, you don't always get that chance."
Tait spoke with psychologists but benefited more from escaping the cricket bubble altogether; he packed up and went on a trip to the United States with his best mate. The decision gave him the time and space he needed to find the clarity he had been seeking. Where early in his career he had been marked as a red-ball cricketer, his chronic back problems meant that was a prospect he was forced to reconsider.
"I just went and dealt with it myself," Tait remembers. "I got it back to basics, and it gave me time to work out that I wanted to be a one-day and T20 player, because the four-day stuff just wasn't working out.
"All I wanted to do was get through a career; it wasn't about playing heaps of Test matches or prestige or money, it was just: I want to play cricket for as long as I can.
"I've tried to break it down myself and wonder what was going on for me all those years ago.
"When you think about it, as a young bloke, it's probably not natural to be 21 and all of a sudden you're all over the media and everyone knows who you are. A lot of guys do it really well and never have a problem, but some guys don't.
"They're thinking, I'm young and I'm going through all this stuff, when all I'm trying to do is play cricket.
"My thing was, I felt like I was missing my youth. Which is so ridiculous; I look back now and realise I wasn't missing my youth at all – I was living a great life.
"But at the time you don't realise that. It's easy for me to say now, I wish I hadn't (walked away) because I had a great life and I was playing cricket for Australia, but you don't realise that when you're in it.
"You're in a bubble when you're playing professional sport, and it's not until you retire and look back on it that you realise it."
Silk and Tait are about as qualified as anyone to speak on the issues facing Maxwell, Maddinson and Pucovski, yet both emphasise the fact they cannot speak to what is happening in these players' minds. Whipper has worked with many cricketers over the years who have been impacted by mental health related problems and understands the vagaries that accompany them.
"It's not clean-cut, mental health," she says. "You don't take some time off, take a pill, come back and you're fine. Life is complex.
"For some people it comes in cycles, for others they may take some time off, change some processes and be ready to go again. For others it could be lifelong."
Silk is concerned by the ubiquity of social media and the impact it is having in this area. Players, like the rest of society, are attached to their phones and, for the most part, enjoy using the platforms to engage with friends and contacts. Unlike most people however, they are also subject to the whims of form and opinion, which in turn dictate whether they are lauded or abused.
"I worry about social media a lot, certainly with someone like Maxwell because he's just so polarising," Silk explains. "I've loved seeing the other side of it, where I feel like so many people have come out and thrown a heap of support behind him, but you've got to be able to deal with both sides of it.
"We're all guilty of reading it. It's absolutely an option (to get off social media), but at the same time we don't want to miss out on anything. And it's a fine balance, because you love seeing your good stuff – I feel like we all like praise – but that's the balance. It's just the greatest leveller like that.
"I've gotten to the point where I'm just trying to not look anything, and just stay in the moment. My job at the end of the day is to make runs. But that takes time as well. That's age, and maturity."
Tait agrees with Silk's summation, and empathises with the contemporary players' desire to be on online platforms that keep them connected and engaged with the world.
"Social media has got a hell of a lot to do with the problems these guys are having, there's no doubt about that," he says. "Obviously the answer is, don't be on social media, but the feeling there nowadays is you're missing out on it because every man and his dog is on it.
"Someone like Glenn Maxwell … he's copped it – the public gets annoyed with him because he plays these shots, he's in and out of teams, everyone's got an opinion on what he should and shouldn't be doing. Sometimes that stuff gets to you.
"Now people will question the timing of (his time away) because it's coming into the Aussie summer, but sometimes you just have to do it.
"I know my situation was that if I didn't do it, I don't know where I would've been at. The fact that I did take a break and then came back, it let me play out the rest of my career."
The wheel has turned for Silk, who says he benefited greatly from weekly sessions with a psychologist – something he now recommends to all players. This summer he captained Tasmania's one-day side, five years on from taking time out of the game to address his mental health concerns. The opening batsman moved to Tasmania from New South Wales as a 20-year-old but after making four hundreds in his first nine Sheffield Shield matches, he experienced a run of poor form that compounded a feeling of isolation he hadn't initially identified as a problem.
"I had no family, no girlfriend down here in Tassie," he says. "I look back at it now and realise I just didn't have the support networks I needed, and I was young, and I would've been hesitant to reach out.
"I think it was a tougher system to speak up in back then than what it's become now, and that's probably an awareness thing; I think coaches are definitely better educated in terms of how to handle these sorts of issues, and player development managers are playing a huge role now. That's become a big job, it's almost part-time counsellor as well – they're someone you're really leaning on.
"And for me it's been awesome because there's young guys down here now who talk to me. I had a player even just a couple of weeks ago who just wanted to catch up for a coffee. We wouldn't normally go out of our way to do that one-on-one, so to feel I'm having some sort of impact on what people are feeling now was nice. That can only be a good thing."
It is the same at New South Wales with Moises Henriques, who after sharing his own experiences with mental health struggles has become not only an advocate but an ear for teammates. In time, perhaps Maxwell and Maddinson – and even Pucovski – will adopt similar roles at Victoria, and so too with Bolton in the West.
Silk looks at Pucovski's travails over the past 12 months and wonders if the young batting prodigy just needs time to come to grips with the unnatural reality described by Tait, who experienced his Test debut in the cauldron of the 2005 Ashes as a wide-eyed 22-year-old.
"Maybe he just needs three or four years to play Shield cricket … maybe he's just not old enough to handle it all at the moment – let's see where he's at when he's 25," Silk says.
"He's 21 – you're rarely getting picked for Australia at that age these days. When Michael Clarke was picked at a young age, social media was basically non-existent.
"But that's just how we see it from the outside looking in; he might not feel those pressures.
"All credit to him though – he's been awesome at being able to pinpoint when it's happening, and bloody brave, too; being able to do what he did right before you're about to realise your dreams of actually playing a Test match is enormous courage. Hats off."
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